RADIO / Brave new worlds apart: Robert Hanks reviews In Search of Utopia and Goodbye to All That

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The Independent Culture
The odd thing about Utopias is that nobody likes them much - there's always some snake lurking in paradise, some sour apple waiting to be tasted. In politics, Marxists have always used 'Utopian' as a term of contempt. In fiction, there's been Samuel Butler's Erewhon (where the sick were treated as criminals) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (where the bond between mother and child was obscene). And when we come across a genuinely pleasant, well-ordered society, like Gulliver in Brobdingnag, we're too small-minded to appreciate its virtues. It seems we don't really like to believe in the possibility of an ideal society.

In Search of Utopia (Radio 4, Sunday) didn't turn up any unexpected corners of perfection. On the other hand, the communes Felicity Goodall visited, exploring the effects they had on their children, weren't quite the cesspools of smothered vice and darkly simmering passions you might expect.

There were murky patches. In the religious communities explored this week, harsh discipline and sexual repression were rife, perhaps not just for religious reasons - in Nineteen Eighty-Four, sex was represented as a rebellious force, and one of the Party's aims was to abolish the orgasm. One man who has now left the Bruderhof in East Sussex, home of a primitive German sect with archaic angles on God, sex and dress-code, remembered drilling a hole in his sister's door so he could find out what a naked woman looked like; he was sent to Coventry by the entire community for three months.

At Findhorn, on the other hand - a rather anomalous appendix to this week's programme, following on from places like the Bruderhof and Scargill, a retreat in Yorkshire offering abseiling and potholing to Christians - young people complained of the lack of structure. They were just left hanging around while their parents were off with the fairies (or at any rate, off with the nature spirits and angelic presences who inhabited the local flora, making it grow to phenomenal sizes). Teenagers ended up shoplifting and vandalising phone-boxes, until redeemed by an ex-policeman who set up a youth group to keep them occupied.

What all these places had in common was their ambivalent relationship with the outside world: on the one hand, it's a dangerous place, offering temptations and creating expectations that are damaging to peace of mind and smooth organisation. On the other hand, it's a safety valve: somewhere for people to go when they can't cope with the cloistered intensity of communal life, and possibly a useful bogeyman for the people who stay. Our suspicions about Utopia are reciprocated.

By a stroke of what you assume was serendipity, Sunday night also saw the start of Goodbye to All That (Radio 4), a series of four programmes about the world's artistic communities. Simon Parkes went to Deya, a small town in Majorca that recovered from the fairly downbeat assessment given it by Chopin and Georges Sand to become home to Robert Graves and Laura Riding, and later a whole host of artistic types, from Picasso and Miro down. Now, following Graves's death, the best it can do is Brian Patten and a reported sighting of Michael Douglas dining in a local restaurant.

By contrast with In Search of Utopia, which was notably reserved about these things, the word 'Paradise' got flung around a lot here: and paradise is always liable to be lost or postponed, or the setting for trouble. Parkes played up the downside of Deya - the laziness that afflicted many of its inhabitants, the pretensions its reputation encouraged, the tourist invasion. And some of the remnants of its bohemian set were ready to play up to that, with stories of rapes and murders and suicides. Parkes is an attractive commentator - his tone hovering just this side of cynical - but the ironies were just a touch too easy, especially in contrast with the complexities allowed by Goodall. Still, nobody's perfect.

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